Tagged: Hot Topic

Kara Walker, songwriter

Kara Walker at work; image courtesy of walkerart.org

Destroyer’s Kaputt came out last Tuesday. As a longtime fan of Dan Bejar’s main project, I’ve been pretty taken with it since tracks started filtering out late last year. My line about Destroyer is that it’s what English majors should be listening to instead of the Decemberists. That’s as much a glib comparison as it is a cheap shot against a band I actively dislike, especially since they have very little in common besides being led by a nasal-voiced front man with a love for big words. I will allow, however, that I’ve never understood the point of Colin Meloy’s lyrics. To my ears, it exists for its own sake and since I maintain that Meloy rivals Jay Leno as the public figure in possession of the most punchable jaw, I’ll interpret that sake as personal edification. Bejar could be accused of similar things, though his elliptical lyrics and prismatic compositions transfix me. Notice how vast “Rubies” is in its first half, only to drop into disarming intimacy. A symphony folds into a four-track recording. Staggering.

I’m interested in Bejar’s artistic evolution, particularly after Your Blues. Derided in some circles as “the MIDI album”–a reference to the antiquated musical interface used to provide much of the album’s background music–many found this stylistic departure from his guitar-based compositions disconcerting. The rockist panic informing such aversion is pretty funny to me. Your Blues ranks among my favorite Destroyer records and warrants rediscovery. It’s clear with subsequent releases that while he may not have been using successive albums to respond to previous ones, he was building on certain ideas. Your Blues hardly sounds like a departure in context. The most reductive connection between Your Blues and Kaputt is that he’s channeling another outdated era of pop music production–one Mark Richardson places between 1977 and 1984, at the height of soft rock, smooth jazz, and new romantic pop. But Bejar’s always been interested in toying with outre musical ideas. Destroyer’s shimmering guitar lines recall 70s AOR staples like Bread and America, so his attempts at something we might call ambient yacht rock shouldn’t come as any surprise. Also, as an Electronic fan, I’m tickled that the New Order/Pet Shop Boys/Smiths’ side project is one of the album’s main musical reference points.

But what does come as something of a (pleasant) surprise to me is artist Kara Walker‘s presence on Kaputt. I had the privilege of seeing her My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love exhibit in 2008 at the Modern in Fort Worth. It remains my most disquieting spectatorial experience. Walker is best known for recasting Antebellum-era silhouette cutouts in cinematic tableaux to reinterpret America’s ongoing racist history (she also gets a shout-out in Le Tigre’s “Hot Topic”). Nightmarish visions of sexual violence and abjection twine with surrealist and sensual imagery that sneak up on you once you look past cultural associations with silhouette portraiture’s feminized gentility. That I saw this after looking at an Impressionist exhibit–and walking through the gift shop–at the nearby Kimbell Museum only put the vitality of the exhibit in sharper relief. There’s no way one of her murals could make it onto an umbrella.

Kara Walker's "Endless Conundrum, An African Anonymous Adventuress" (2001); image courtesy of walkerart.org

Perhaps related to serving as a curator for Merge Records’ retrospective, Walker contributed lyrics to “Suicide Demo for Kara Walker,” so named as a reference to the proto-punk duo. She wrote several charged phrases onto cue cards and Bejar sang them, rearranging and embellishing some passages. It’s easily my favorite song on the record, though I’m disquieted as to why. Ann Powers recently offered some insights into their collaborative effort, noting their shared interest in appropriation. Bejar has been compared to Leonard Cohen, particularly his detached narration of hedonistic tales. Soft rock’s seductive qualities–the backlit production, the reliance on 7th chords–disquiet in their efforts to soothe and drip sophistication, especially when Bejar whispers lines like “New York City just wants to see you naked and they will,” “wise, old, black, and dead in the snow,” “All that slender-wristed, white, translucent business passes for love these days,” and “Don’t talk about the South, she said.” Kaputt also prominently features vocalist Sibel Thrasher. In the context of this song, her presence calls into question the role many black female vocalists held as background singers for artists like Simply Red. 

Cohen also comes to mind when we talk about reinterpretation. Many folks who’ve heard “Hallelujah” might attribute Jeff Buckley, but the song originated with Cohen (actually, Buckley’s version is a cover of a cover, as he cribbed John Cale’s reading of it). So what happens when lyrics are drafted by an African American woman whose words are then reinterpreted by a white Canadian man frolicking in the studio? Who does it belong to? Frankly, I’m not sure. I’m inclined to rule that it belongs to both of them and to the listener. What I know for certain is that this song is stuck on repeat.

High school me wouldn’t listen to Taylor Swift, but she didn’t know about no wave either

Um, no -- I reject Taylor Swift's hailing of the geek, even if I must interrogate my own geekery to do so; image courtesy of nydailynews.com

Yesterday, Annie at Celebrity Gossip, Academic Style posted an entry on Taylor Swift, which I read while waiting for her to unpack what’s going on with Demi Lovato in what I hope will be a future post. Given her interest in contemporary gossip culture, she focuses her attention on Swift’s success in cultivating her own celebrity through her music and savvy use of social media and the tabloids. As she has generously before, Annie linked an entry I wrote on Swift some months back. She also called me out as someone who didn’t like Swift.

Well, “call out” isn’t exactly the right term. It suggests I had something to hide. I’ll be clear. I dislike Swift’s music and persona to such a degree that I have to keep my misogynistic tendencies in check (yes, feminists can be lady-haters too). In fact, I recently asked Kristen at Act Your Age to redirect a foaming-at-the-mouth ALL CAPS rant I was launching into toward a more productive discussion. We shifted gears with a conversation about the Spark Summit “Girl Activists Speak Out” panel Shelby Knox moderated, which I recommend viewing.

My acrimony toward Swift hasn’t altered much, though it would give me much to talk about with Sady Doyle and Amanda Hess following their recent Swift-related exchange for Tiger Beatdown. I find her passive-aggressive revenge anthems against boys who wronged her and pious missives against sluts she takes upon herself to shame unbearable. I still take offense to celebrations of her guitar playing and songwriting as exceptional, interpreting it less as evidence that young women and girls are making tremendous in-roads in the music industry and more as condescending ignorance toward the perennial presence of young female musicians society chooses not to prioritize. Her constructed authenticity bothers me, a criticism I wage against the majority of contemporary country musicians and virtually every white man who plugged in an electric guitar in the 1960s. Her upper-middle-class family moved from Pennsylvania to Nashville and home-schooled their daughter in a Christian tradition so she could break into the industry.

As her star has risen, her lyrics gesture toward a keen, callous awareness of how gossip culture operates. It’s almost like she got linked to John Mayer in anticipation of writing a song about what she may have done in a hotel room with him so Jezebel could speculate over it. She’s also become more indulgent, further evidence that her false modesty belies a wicked sense of entitlement. Forgiving Kanye? Devoting nearly 7 minutes to John Mayer? Calling Camilla Belle a mattress gymnast? Speak Now? Ann Powers  may be on to something when she says Swift has matured musically, but I’ve heard enough. It may get her magazine covers and move units. But I find her capitalizing on supposed victimhood to be as monstrous as her personal life is boring.

I take particular umbrage with Swift’s nerd drag. She may have endured hardships in her teen years. She may have felt uncool and threatened by weird girls with hip sensibilities and less normative interests, though I can imagine high school yearbook coverage distorts this perception, if not her recording contract. She may have been misunderstood and it may be manifested in her music videos where she wears thick glasses, but she gets to hand those back to wardrobe. Many of the nerd girls I know had prescriptions. Being a nerd was intrinsic. As a result, they were harassed by their peers. They endured homophobic epithets or having garbage thrown at them. The best they could hope for was to be ignored entirely, as if their existence didn’t matter. Some were queer. Most had little interest in extra-curricular activities, focusing instead on riot grrrl, comics, science fiction, or Anne Sexton, though one of them played softball and volleyball while distancing herself from the in crowd. They may not have been as calculated, but all of them were smarter than Swift ever play-acted at being.

What was especially funny for me when reading Annie’s post was my incidental soundtrack. Roughly twenty minutes before, I put on a no wave mix from the Free Music Archive while doing some office work. When I started Annie’s entry, I was about 14 minutes into a live recording of “Sweetness,” a song by Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore’s side project Northampton Wools. For those familiar with a subgenre that formed as an extreme reaction against punk’s relatively tame dalliances with nihilism and (aural and physical) violence, it might come as little surprise that this is the section that sounds like a lead violinist is tuning to a test tone in the center of a beehive. A better juxtaposition couldn’t engineer itself.

I don’t bring this up to cast myself as some diving rod of subterranean cool. I hardly think of myself as any reliable barometer and would challenge such an impression if one exists. I may romanticize my discovery of college radio during high school. It was certainly informative of the sardonic feminist crank I’m proud to be today. But I didn’t form a band. I didn’t sneak out of the house to attend gigs at Fitzgerald’s or Mary Jane’s. While my interests in underground music developed (though not much deeper than Liz Phair’s Matador years), I didn’t harness it in any oppositional way. It didn’t even occur to me because I was too busy taking down the minutes at National Honor Society meetings. It was a curio I kept to myself, bringing it out of my bedroom on rare occasion. I still subscribed to Rolling Stone. I fancied myself an intellectual because I read rock anthologies I got at Barnes and Noble. Talk about nerd drag.

Rather, what crystallized in reading Annie’s post was that, in identifying with Swift, her descriptions of a relatively normal teenage existence weren’t dissimilar from my own. I had a sense of this from taking a girls’ studies class with her, wherein personal anecdotes of feminine adolescent experiences would seep into discussion. We grew up in small towns. We didn’t have animosity toward them but had ambitions beyond them that involved tending to a decorated résumé. Having read Anita Harris’ seminal piece on can-do and at-risk girls, we shared the sentiments held by much of the class when relating more closely with the former. We didn’t challenge this binary in our teen years with recreational drug use, shoplifting, or truancy. In our aggregate social interactions, I sense that our exchanges would be similar if we were in high school. I don’t think we’d be close friends, bifurcated by different social allegiances. However, we would be cordial in the hallways, respectable toward one another’s observations in Socratic seminars, and partner up for team research projects. We probably would’ve been in French Club together.

This is all prelude to why I was listening to this no wave mix when I read Annie’s post. I was revisiting Ut, a seminal no wave band that I didn’t hear until college. I did know about them in high school, but that’s because they were mentioned in Le Tigre’s “Hot Topic.” For those following along, the band is nestled between Billie Jean King and DJ Kuttin Kandy. I learned about it in Spin, because it was supposedly hipper than the Boomer rockism Jann Wenner privileges in his publication.

Ut, a band so ahead of their time they didn't even bother coming up with a Google-friendly name; image courtesy of julietippex.com

Sally Young, Jacqui Ham, and Nina Canal of Ut deserve as much tribute as Lydia Lunch, Y Pants, or the Bush Tetras. Though I’m a fan of the Contortions and DNA and proselytize the contributions of their female members, no wave was introduced to me as a dude’s fetish toward dude music. You know, Swans’ fans who can’t get enough of Michael Gira’s pilot outfit pummeling them with purposefully grim songs about cops, slaves, and rape. It has a function, but I question its import. It’s also fairly tedious, as is usually the case when white men try to confront people with their definitions of ugliness.

Ut is a good way in. Like Young God founder Gira, they also ran their own label, Out. By committing to the sonic austerity and infusing it with feminist rage against personal and systemic oppression, Ut created well-crafted and truly terrifying music. Regrettably there’s little live footage and reissued material isn’t especially easy to come by, which I think make their contributions worth greater attention. I may not have listened to them in high school, but I embrace and aspire to learn from the kinds of girls who did and would. Taylor Swift fans are welcome at my lunch table too, so long as we can trade mixes.

Ariel Schrag’s Awkward and Definition

Cover to Awkward and Definition; image courtesy of amazon.com

Last night, I cuddled on the couch and read Ariel Schrag’s Awkward and Definition. I needed something to do while my computer burned the mix CDs for Kristen‘s and my Girls Rock Camp music history workshop, which we teach tomorrow. As session #1 is in full swing, it seemed fitting to read two graphic novels from a queer girl cartoonist and avowed rock music fan.

For those unfamiliar, these two books document Schrag’s first two years at Berkeley High School in the mid-90s. She composed them during the summers between each school year. Potential, which follows her junior year and Likewise, which captures her senior year, were published later. If you weren’t aware of Schrag’s work, perhaps you can recall her name being mentioned in Le Tigre’s “Hot Topic” or recognize her as a writer on The L-Word. But Awkward and Definition put her on the map.

I find these two books interesting for a number of reasons. For one, the visual style changes dramatically. Awkward is sloppily put together, with characters resembling melted Precious Moments figurines. Definition has cleaner lines, surer plotting, and better defined character composition. Not that Awkward‘s messiness is in any way a disadvantage. While it may cause eye strain at times, the sheer exhilaration of a girl putting this together was enough for me. That cartoonist and chemistry enthusiast Schrag already had her own voice and vision at such a young age is inspiring to me.

"Whoo! Ariel Schrag!"; image courtesy of timeoutnewyork.com

There’s also the matter of Schrag’s fandom, which is a key aspect of her queer girlhood. It’s evident in who she idolizes. Evincing the era, Schrag is a big alternative rock fan who loves going to shows and acquires a Fender Stratocaster from her mom on her 16th birthday. Her idols cover her walls as well, as her bedroom becomes a shrine to L7, No Doubt’s Gwen Stefani, and Juliette Lewis. It’s also interesting how she uses language to possess her idols. An early male love interest is called “my L7” because of his coveted band t-shirts. Application of glittery make-up is referred to as “putting on my Gwen.” And Juliette Lewis is simply “my Juliette.” I find it particularly interesting that Scrag watches anything with Lewis in it, but has a particular affinity for Mallory Knox in Natural Born Killers.

Schrag is also girl-crazy — identifying as bisexual, but will later come out as a lesbian — and surrounded by girl companions who fall in and out of her social circle. This is refreshing, in part because I grew up in an area where bisexual, lesbian, and transgender girls assuredly existed, but primarily remained in the closet. So perhaps I sound like a West Coast outsider, but it’s staggering to me that Schrag had so many queer and queer-friendly girlfriends she could crush on, but also call upon as friends. Having just read an article about two gay teen male friends in New York who were voted king and queen of their prom by their peers further instills me with hope.

I was also pleased by the depiction of drug use and Schrag’s engagement with the street. I didn’t do drugs in high school and received fairly strict parameters from my parents, who wouldn’t let me go to punk shows in Houston until I graduated from high school. This was primarily because gigs usually weren’t close by and because my mom worried about what dangers could befall a young girl. And while I’m more than a little surprised by how permissive Schrag’s parents were (or perhaps how little they knew about their daughter’s social activities), I’m also pleased that Schrag’s drug experimentation isn’t sensationalized. Pair this against, say, Larry Clark’s Kids, a movie I hate in part because it promises to be transgressive in its representation of urban teenagers but actually espouses a cautionary, conservative ideology (note: I dislike Requiem for a Dream for similar reasons). This isn’t to say that I approve of how often she hits the pipe. I just like that we can see a girl character partake of drugs without dying, getting raped, or contracting a disease. It’s refreshing.

Similarly, I like that Schrag and her friends are sometimes put in scary situations, but are resourceful enough to work through them. This is best exemplified when Schrag and her friend Julia attend a Bush concert (No Doubt cancelled! NO!) for Julia’s birthday. They get dropped off at the wrong venue and have to figure out how to get to the show and get home. This requires the two girls — who are also high — to walk vacant streets, take the bus, ask for help from the useless police, attempt to hail a cab, and finally get a ride home from Julia’s dad. Again, this situation is far from ideal. Yet I like to see girls be tough, resourceful, and successfully get out of bad situations.

Of course, I can’t review the two graphic novels without mentioning the exnomination of racial and class privilege. I’m not sure of Schrag’s socioeconomic background, but she does come from a politically progressive area that appears to be predominantly white. Thus it was probably easier for her to grow up queer than it is for rural, working class young people. That said, I’m still pleased that she possessed the confidence to declare her teen years important enough to capture in self-made panels teeming with wit, anxiety, and glee. I only hope Potential lives up to its title.

Why I pulled out my college radio mixtapes

Earlier this week, Caitlin at Dark Room posted a couple of mixes from her college radio days on Facebook and asked for her friends to contribute some of their playlists. This seemed like an interesting project with findings worthy of disclosure here, especially since I often make casual reference to my tenure as a deejay at KVRX

I started in the fall of 2002 at the beginning of my sophomore year. A fan of Allan Moyle’s Pump Up the Volume, the urge to have my own radio show was planted during my freshman year of college. My friend Brooke had a show at KANM called “Weakdays” and knowing she could program a show inspired me to give it a go. We both liked The Dismemberment Plan, we both could read PSAs aloud, and I felt confident that I could master the switchboard too.

A few days before the semester began, I filled out an application and secured a timeslot for Saturday mornings at 9 a.m. As KVRX shares its frequency with KOOP and switched over from FM to RealAudio, I felt better knowing I had the entire first semester to iron out any kinks my show may have without being able to get picked up in someone else’s car. The Internet still felt very private at the time, even though RealAudio could get picked up in another part of the world instead of inside the condensed hub of Central Austin.   

I named my show “Hang the DJ,” a reference to The Smiths’ “Panic.” As the song was a modern rock radio staple, the program title should be an indication that I was half-hearted in my attempt at becoming a fan. A year later, I’d acknowledge that I just couldn’t get into them as I was developing my show. Come spring 2003, I changed the name of my show to “Cheesecake or Fugu,” a title that came to me in the shower when I was remembering a review I’d read in high school of Cibo Matto’s Viva! La Woman! that compared their sound to the Japanese delicacy.  

Listening to tapes from that time, apart from their lo-fi charm and developing fluency with related technology, two things strike me: 1) I wasn’t yet comfortable talking into a microphone and 2) I don’t listen to a lot of that stuff anymore. Listening to a November 2002 broadcast, it’s surprising to me how many dude singer-songwriters and indie bands I played. Clem Snide, Death Cab for Cutie, and Richard Buckner? Pass. Belle and Sebastian and Okkervil River? Not against it, but wouldn’t fight someone to defend their merits. Some of these acts were indicative of the buzz they generated, as well as the mercurial nature of being of-the-moment. Remember when we were supposed to care about Ben Kweller and The Warlocks? You don’t? Me either.

Of course, that these broadcasts seem foreign to me now is largely the point. During the first six months at KVRX, I hadn’t locked into what I liked yet. I was trying to fit in, catching up to just how much music I now had at my disposal. In all candor, the first six months at KVRX were terrifying to me. The office itself was scary, as it was usually peopled with oft-bespectacled dudes huddled together and volleying well-considered, often incendiary opinions about obscure music. It was full-on High Fidelity. Several of these guys would later become my friends. But at the time I was 19 and not ready to share that I had just heard of the Mountain Goats. So I kept quiet.

Incidentally, KVRX was something of a meet market that seemed particularly inclined toward heterosexual activity. Lots of hook-ups, some of which resulted in marriages or at least amicable splits. It makes sense, as obsessive, esoteric types tend to gravitate toward one another. Young girls can be especially vulnerable and I was no exception. I dated two deejays during my first year at KVRX. Looking back on that time with a more nuanced understanding of feminist politics, I feel weird and more than a little embarrassed about the gendered power dynamics of romantic pursuit. But I also found my partner there, who I formed a relationship with on more egalitarian terms.   

I’d like to think that dating fellow deejays had less to do with setting me apart than the talent I developed during my time at KVRX: writing reviews. As deejays needed to log four hours of volunteer time each month in order to keep their shows, drafting reviews for new releases was a great opportunity, especially since the station would receive hundreds of new albums each month. A review for one full-length album translated into a volunteer hour. I averaged about three reviews a week, thus gaining awareness of several artists as well as the output of the labels they were signed to. Through this, I fell in love with artists like Broadcast and Electrelane. As a journalism major, this acclimated me to a constant writing schedule. Through reviews, I developed my musical preferences and found my voice as a writer. And people started noticing my reviews, even occasionally printing them in The Call Letter, KVRX’s ‘zine.

But nothing got me better acquainted with music than putting together a weekly show. And while many deejays had specialty shows where they focused on particular genres like death metal, hardcore, or the blues, my show was decidedly free-form. At KVRX, free-form shows abided by the following requirements: each hour of free-form programming had to feature artists from five genres, two Texas artists, and five selections from the new bin, where the most recent reviewed offerings were kept. In addition, KVRX maintains a strict “none of the hits” policy. During my time, that meant that any artist who received even moderate success on any mainstream music network or radio station within the past ten years could not be played. Some deejays found these sanctions to be restrictive, but having these limitations motivated me to dig deeper and listen more broadly.     

I also learned how I wanted my show to be perceived conceptually. I made sure the music was continuous, even going so far as to select instrumentals to talk over while I ran through my playlist, which I’d update after a three-song set. I also tried to vary songs from genre to genre, pairing Tom Zé’s “To” with Deerhoof’s “Milkman.”

I was also fond of layering songs into one another, overlapping the final moments of Sack and Blumm’s “Baby Bass Buss” with the intro to Le Tigre’s “Hot Topic.” I made sure that song selection went with the time of day, which once I got on FM was always in the evenings, particularly during safe harbor so I could play hip hop and Gravy Train!!!!. I also tried to bridge the content of my show with promos, tags, and the programs that bookended mine. Before I got to Raymond Williams in graduate school, I was familiar with the concept of flow.

I also became aware of my voice as an on-air talent. Though some deejays mumble or try to take focus away from themselves, hearing my voice bandy words about (often to myself) made me cognizant of articulation, elocution, and tone. There was also a performative quality to presenting an on-air persona as I intoned an idealized version of my natural speaking voice. It also skeeved me out when some dudes would call in to inform me of the supposed sexiness of my voice. I got really good at telling strangers to fuck off and hanging up on people mid-conversation. Unfortunately, these instances were fairly common amongst my female peers and some endured more serious harassment.  

BTW, kudos to the dude callers who were supportive and respectful. Thanks to the nice lady callers as well.

Oddly enough, this awareness did not lead me toward doing a female-only show. I dabbled in it occasionally. I did a women’s issue news program one summer with a girl named Kelly I met when we were cast in The Vagina Monologues. I briefly took over a friend’s female-only show when she quit during her first semester in the UT American Studies master’s program. At the time, I found doing a female-only show limiting. Now I think I’d have to do a free-form female-only show. Why not pair Umm Kulthum with Dessa?

I started graduate school in fall 2006. I thought about returning to KVRX after about a year off from undergrad. But I felt like it was another group of kids’ turn. Also, I simply didn’t have the time to devote to a weekly show and its related responsibilities. When I applied to PhD programs, the schools’ radio stations were a determining factor and will continue to be when I reapply.

In the meantime, a podcast series is appealing to me, especially after I started listening to Veronica Ortuño‘s “Cease to Exist“. Rest assured that when I do start another radio program, all broadcasts will be well archived so I can dig ’em up and tune in again.

Dammit, Taylor Swift

Taylor Swift, America's sweetheart; image courtesy of villagevoice.com

At the risk of sounding aloof, I’ve been ignoring Taylor Swift for some time. Readers might notice that I haven’t said a peep about her beyond an observation about how she might be a continuation of the girl group tradition after she hosted SNL. When the VMA debacle happened, I didn’t care. I thought Beyoncé was classy about it, and I thought Kanye was right in his opinion, if wrong in execution (seriously, “Single Ladies” is one of the best videos of all time, and perhaps the most iconic of its decade). I thought Swift seemed a little unnecessarily entitled when she was gave her acceptance speech later in the broadcast, but other than that I thought very little about it. 

For a while, I actually didn’t know who this Taylor Swift person was. First I thought she was on The Hills. I work under the assumption that any famous white person on MTV is a Hill. 

Just so we're clear, none of the girls in this heterocentric male gaze imagining of a slumber party are Taylor Swift; image courtesy of nydailynews.com

Then I saw her take some Southern kid to the prom on MTV. Then I found out she was a country singer from Pennsylvania who loved Def Leppard and covered Eminem’s “Lose Yourself,” which didn’t help her cause. Then I heard the pop version of “You Belong With Me,” promptly motivating me to listen to the slightly twangier original. From here, I reduced her to “country Avril” and went about my business. 

Cover to the "You Belong With Me" single (Big Machine/Universal Music Group, 2008); image courtesy of buzzworthy.mtv.com

Swift, not unlike Depeche Mode in their own way, may be a good gateway artist into more interesting and challenging music. Being a pre-teen Depeche Mode devotee led me to Siouxsie and the Banshees, Joy Division, and Nick Cave’s various incarnations (admit it, DM fans: your band is at best a singles act; only Violator and maybe Black Celebration are essential in an otherwise mediocre catalog). Likewise, Swift might lead fans to The Dixie Chicks, Neko Case, Rosie Flores, Janis Martin, and Wanda Jackson. But my opinion of Swift is, “fine, she’s young and plays a guitar and writes her own songs (with Liz Rose) . . . but I’m totally bored by her.” 

Kristen at Act Your Age and my friend Asha forwarded this Autostraddle article to me. Asha asked me what I thought about it, and an outpouring of opinions bubbled up. Apparently I can get my screed on over a musician I have no personal investment in. But as I watched her wide, ordinary Grammy performance with Stevie Nicks (who sounded ridiculous singing “she’s cheer captain and I’m on the bleachers,” BTW) and yelled at my television when she gave her folksy “we’ll tell our grandchildren about this” Album of the Year speech, I discovered that I do have a personal investment in her fame. So here we go. 

I’m pretty much in line with the writer and have brought up Swift’s privileged upbringing, pedantic songwriting, normative femininity, her handling of the VMA debacle, and inauthentic authenticity when talking to other people about her. 

I agree with the writer about how there wasn’t really anything to hate about Taylor Swift until she started racking up important awards. I get her appeal, but I have no personal investment in her career. She writes inoffensive love songs you’d hear on the CW or romantic comedies women are supposed to love (like Valentine’s Day, which stars Swift and features her music). 

Above all, Swift’s music is inoffensive to the point of offense when you factor in its success. When I think about Swift’s age alongside the teenage output of acts like Schmillion, Roxanne Shanté, ESG, Mika Miko, Björk’s work in KUKL, and some girl in her bedroom whose music I have yet to hear, I’m far more interested in that music. It’s weird and flawed and brave and inspiring. It’s really easy to forget about Swift when this music is also available. I wish more people would take the time to find it.

I’d like to point out that the Album of the Year Grammy isn’t as important as the writer suggests, nor should it be to you. In the grand tradition of award ceremonies and canons, the Grammys have long esteemed mediocrity and blandness. Sure, some cool people have won. But lots of boring and past-their-prime people have also won. And some great artists haven’t won Album of the Year but continue to make enduring music, as a Jezebel writer pointed out at the end of a recent article. 

I can also counter the writer’s closing paragraphs, which are pretty hyperbolic. I’m not sure how much of a punk Lady Gaga is, or what, for that matter, the value of the word “punk” means when you can apply it to Vivian Westwood couture, coffee table books, and Hot Topic. That said, I too am inspired by mainstream female pop stars who explore and own the complex dimensions of their sexuality, particularly P!nk, Janet Jackson, and Christina Aguilera. I only wish there were more of them, or that Gossip’s Beth Ditto or M.I.A. sold enough records to qualify. 

Beth Ditto: my kind of pop star; image courtesy of brooklynvegan.com

I don’t really take issue with Swift being a weak singer, in that I don’t think evaluating singers in terms of their technical abilities is always a fruitful exercise. I’d be happier with her being a weak singer if she did something interesting with her voice, but I basically feel like she’s doing karaoke when she sings. This could have a charm to it if her phrasing and sense of dynamics weren’t also really obvious. And she often acts out lyrics in a way that I find insulting to the audience. Sure it’s a continuation of the girl group tradition. But do you really need to mime picking up a phone to let listeners know that you’re talking on the phone with some boy? Is it your way of helping out your international fan base? Or is just so you can remember the exact words that comprise the trite rhetoric you’re selling? 

Thus, if we have to make problematic either/or value judgments, I think it’s better to evaluate singing not as good or bad, but as present or absent. Lots of artists lack technically proficient or “pretty” voices, but get you with their commitment to creating sound and the feelings behind it. Likewise, lots of singers have pleasant voices, but sound like they’re thinking about checking their e-mail or getting on a plane. So, I actually take issue with how removed Swift sounds from her music. And then I really take issue with how she sings about romance with a disingenuous approximation of sustained wonder. For me, Death Cab for Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard does something similar and it drives me up a tree. Add some faux-authentic lyrics about ripped jeans, pick-up trucks, sneakers, and faded t-shirts and I don’t think you’re emoting so much as lying

That said, I think this quote is a little insulting: “Swift simply hasn’t had the life experience and doesn’t inherently possess the emotional maturity to create great art.” It smacks a bit of “she’s just a girl; she hasn’t experienced life yet.” As women who work with girls, Kristen and I include Swift in our music history workshops. We don’t do this as fans, but because we know she means a lot to many girls, some of whom are just learning how to play music or are picking up instruments for the first time. Some of you might be reading this now, and I totally respect your preferences and value your opinions. You may be die-hard fans, or you may grow out of her music and find something else. You may believe in the kinds of fairy tales Swift trades in, though hopefully you’ll come to them with a revisionist bent like Lady Gaga, Bat for Lashes, or St. Vincent

Whatever you choose, all I hope for as an older, cranky lady who doesn’t like Swift’s music is that you never stop discovering new sounds as you develop your own. And I promise never to bore you with stories about how awesome and progressive my pop idols were in comparison to your music, because no text is ever above inquiry. Swift is problematic, but so is Björk. As I have faith in your awesomeness, I have no doubt that you’ll come up with something that’ll blow me away. And if you wanna bitch about Swift and turn that rage into something completely new and original, I’ll be here to listen.

R.I.P., Lil Rounds

Lil Rounds singing the hell out of Mary J. Bliges Be Without You

Lil Rounds singing the hell out of Mary J. Blige's "Be Without You"

It’s with a heavy heart that I report that Lil Rounds, the gorgeous, scrappy mother of three from Memphis, is out of the competition to be the next American Idol. And they kicked her out so anti-climactically — right at the beginning, after the awful, hokey group performance of the Jackson 5’s “Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground),” tying last night’s disco theme together in a heinous way (also, did anyone else notice that the obligatory Ford music video was for Lykke Li’s “I’m Good, I’m Gone”?). She didn’t even get to be in the hot seat! They just sent her home, letting her kill “I’m Every Woman” one last time.

I’m sad for a few reasons. One, Lil Rounds had such an awesome, promising start in the competition. She was my early favorite. Do you remember when she performed Mary J’s “Be Without You” at the very beginning, securing her a spot in the Top 12? Do you remember how she, to borrow from judge Randy Jackson, “blew it out the box”?

The thing is, she could never really hold onto that (though I liked her renditions of Martina McBride’s “Independence Day” and Martha and the Vandellas’ “Heat Wave”). She kept choosing goopy ballads or copying iconic artists (I mean, you can’t touch Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got to Do With It”, much less copy her look — you just can’t). In short, it seemed like she had a hard time figuring out who she was. If I were a judge, I’d be like “listen to less 80s-era Whitney and more Sharon Jones.”

But also, this was a bad season for ladies. I wanted Alexis Grace to have the chance to develop. I wanted Megan Corkrey (later Megan Joy) to be as good as her audition. And I hope Allison Iraheta, the rad 17-year-old girl with the whiskey voice and hair straight out of Jem and the Holograms who narrowly escaped elimination tonight, gets the prize (or at least gets to square off with boy-next-door Kris Allen and the divisive, gender queer, Hot Topic rocker Adam Lambert — I’m beyond done with the white boy appropriations of sub-Timberlake Matt Giraud and sub-Michael McDonald Danny Gokey).

And, of course, Lil’s exit needs to be put in a larger context around the show’s troublesome history with race. Black people have it harder on Idol, especially the ladies. Tamyra Gray was let go before her time. So was Jennifer Hudson, though she seems to be doing well. Mandisa was also an early favorite of mine (though her lack of tolerance for the LGBT community is unfortunate). Fantasia Barrino was the first female African American winner, but she hasn’t received nearly the mainstream success that fellow winners and Southern girls like Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood have gotten. Paris Bennett was let go the season that the insufferable Taylor Hicks won (man, talk about white boy appropriation). The worst for me was the finals for season 6, when it seemed that the darker and less normative the contestant was, the quicker they were let go (LeKeesha Jones, Melinda Doolittle), until we were left with the white boy beatboxer and the mixed race, purity ring-wearing, Christian who could pass.

Anyway, I hope this isn’t the last we hear of Lil. She’s got a great voice, a great name (!), and a lot of heart. Hopefully, she can figure out how to market it.